The Ghetto by Lola Ridge, Radical Poet
By Nava Atlas | On February 17, 2020 | Updated September 2, 2022 | Comments (0)
2018 marked the 100th anniversary of the first and most important book by Lola Ridge,The Ghetto and Other Poems. In the epic-length title poem, the Irish-American poet known for her radicalism celebrated the Jewish immigrants of New York City’s Lower East Side.
Terese Svoboda, author of Anything That Burns You: A Portrait of Radical Poet Lola Ridge (2018) wrote of her:
“A bigamist as well as an anarchist, Ridge left her son in an orphanage in L.A. soon after her arrival in the U.S., when she went to work for Emma Goldman and Margaret Sanger in New York. Ten years later, she protested Sacco and Vanzetti’s execution in Massachusetts, and faced down a rearing police horse.
Solo and broke in the next decade, she traveled to Baghdad and Mexico – and took a lover at sixty-one. Her five books of poetry contain poems about lynching, execution, race riots, and imprisonment.”
Following the 1918 publication of The Ghetto and Other Poems, Ridge’s poetical works were gathered into four more collections. In addition to Svoboda’s Anything That Burns You, Collected Early Work of Lola Ridge was also published in 2018, signaling a reconsideration of her life and work.
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Lola Ridge, Radical Poet
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Following, in its glorious entirety, is what is still arguably Ridge’s most famous piece, It’s actually a sequence of forty-three free-verse poems under the umbrella of the title, The Ghetto.
The poem, originally published in The New Republic not long before it appeared in book form, received mixed reactions.
Bella Cohen in The New York Call commented: “She has mixed her paints in the old way, but she has thrown her brush across the canvas with strange, bold strokes.”
Critic Conrad Aiken wrote: “One hesitates to make suggestions. Miss Ridge might have to sacrifice too much vigor and richness to obtain a greater beauty of form; the effort might prove her undoing. By the degree of her success or failure in this undertaking, however, she would become aware of her real capacities as an artist.”
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Cool, inaccessible air
Is floating in velvety blackness shot with steel-blue lights,
But no breath stirs the heat
Leaning its ponderous bulk upon the Ghetto
And most on Hester street…
Nosing in the body’s overflow,
Like a beast pressing its great steaming belly close,
Covering all avenues of air…
The heat in Hester street,
Heaped like a dray
With the garbage of the world.
Bodies dangle from the fire escapes
Or sprawl over the stoops…
Upturned faces glimmer pallidly—
Herring-yellow faces, spotted as with a mold,
And moist faces of girls
Like dank white lilies,
And infants’ faces with open parched mouths that suck at the air
as at empty teats.
Young women pass in groups,
Converging to the forums and meeting halls,
Surging indomitable, slow
Through the gross underbrush of heat.
Their heads are uncovered to the stars,
And they call to the young men and to one another
With a free camaraderie.
Only their eyes are ancient and alone…
The street crawls undulant,
Like a river addled
With its hot tide of flesh
That ever thickens.
Heavy surges of flesh
Break over the pavements,
Clavering like a surf—
Flesh of this abiding
Brood of those ancient mothers who saw the dawn break over Egypt…
And turned their cakes upon the dry hot stones
And went on
Till the gold of the Egyptians fell down off their arms…
Fasting and athirst…
And yet on…
Did they vision—with those eyes darkly clear,
That looked the sun in the face and were not blinded—
Across the centuries
The march of their enduring flesh?
Did they hear—
Under the molten silence
Of the desert like a stopped wheel—
(And the scorpions tick-ticking on the sand…)
The infinite procession of those feet?
I room at Sodos’—in the little green room that was Bennie’s—
And her old father and her mother,
Who is not so old and wears her own hair.
Old Sodos no longer makes saddles.
He has forgotten how.
He has forgotten most things—even Bennie who stays away
and sends wine on holidays—
And he does not like Sadie’s mother
Who hides God’s candles,
Whose young pagan breath puts out the light—
That should burn always,
Like Aaron’s before the Lord.
Time spins like a crazy dial in his brain,
And night by night
I see the love-gesture of his arm
In its green-greasy coat-sleeve
Circling the Book,
And the candles gleaming starkly
On the blotched-paper whiteness of his face,
Like a miswritten psalm…
Night by night
I hear his lifted praise,
Like a broken whinnying
Before the Lord’s shut gate.
Sadie dresses in black.
She has black-wet hair full of cold lights
And a fine-drawn face, too white.
All day the power machines
Drone in her ears…
All day the fine dust flies
Till throats are parched and itch
And the heat—like a kept corpse—
Fouls to the last corner.
Then—when needles move more slowly on the cloth
And sweaty fingers slacken
And hair falls in damp wisps over the eyes—
Sped by some power within,
Sadie quivers like a rod…
A thin black piston flying,
One with her machine.
She—who stabs the piece-work with her bitter eye
And bids the girls: “Slow down—
You’ll have him cutting us again!”
She—fiery static atom,
Held in place by the fierce pressure all about—
Speeds up the driven wheels
And biting steel—that twice
Has nipped her to the bone.
Nights, she reads
Those books that have most unset thought,
New-poured and malleable,
To which her thought
Leaps fusing at white heat,
Or spits her fire out in some dim manger of a hall,
Or at a protest meeting on the Square,
Her lit eyes kindling the mob…
Or dances madly at a festival.
Each dawn finds her a little whiter,
Though up and keyed to the long day,
Alert, yet weary… like a bird
That all night long has beat about a light.
The Gentile lover, that she charms and shrews,
Is one more pebble in the pack
For Sadie’s mother,
Who greets him with her narrowed eyes
That hold some welcome back.
“What’s to be done?” she’ll say,
“When Sadie wants she takes…
Better than Bennie with his Christian woman…
A man is not so like,
If they should fight,
To call her Jew…”
Yet when she lies in bed
And the soft babble of their talk comes to her
And the silences…
I know she never sleeps
Till the keen draught blowing up the empty hall
Edges through her transom
And she hears his foot on the first stairs.
Sarah and Anna live on the floor above.
Sarah is swarthy and ill-dressed.
Life for her has no ritual.
She would break an ideal like an egg for the winged thing at the core.
Her mind is hard and brilliant and cutting like an acetylene torch.
If any impurities drift there, they must be burnt up as in a clear flame.
It is droll that she should work in a pants factory.
—Yet where else… tousled and collar awry at her olive throat.
Besides her hands are unkempt.
With English… and everything… there is so little time.
She reads without bias—
Psychology, plays, science, philosophies—
Those giant flowers that have bloomed and withered, scattering their seed…
—And out of this young forcing soil what growth may come—
what amazing blossomings.
Anna is different.
One is always aware of Anna, and the young men turn their heads
to look at her.
She has the appeal of a folk-song
And her cheap clothes are always in rhythm.
When the strike was on she gave half her pay.
She would give anything—save the praise that is hers
And the love of her lyric body.
But Sarah’s desire covets nothing apart.
She would share all things…
Even her lover.
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The sturdy Ghetto children
March by the parade,
Waving their toy flags,
Prancing to the bugles—
Shaking little fire sticks
At the night—
The old blinking night—
Swerving out of the way,
Wrapped in her darkness like a shawl.
But a small girl
Her braided head,
Shiny as a black-bird’s
In the gleam of the torch-light,
Is poised as for flight.
Her eyes have the glow
Of darkened lights.
She stammers in Yiddish,
But I do not understand,
And there flits across her face
As of a drawn blind.
I give her an orange,
Large and golden,
And she looks at it blankly.
I take her little cold hand and try to draw her to me,
But she is stiff…
Like a doll…
Suddenly she darts through the crowd
Like a little white panic
Blown along the night—
Away from the terror of oncoming feet…
And drums rattling like curses in red roaring mouths…
And torches spluttering silver fire
And lights that nose out hiding-places…
To the night—
Squatting like a hunchback
Under the curved stoop—
The old mammy-night
That has outlived beauty and knows the ways of fear—
The night—wide-opening crooked and comforting arms,
Hiding her as in a voluminous skirt.
The sturdy Ghetto children
March by the parade,
Waving their toy flags,
Prancing to the bugles,
But I see a white frock
And eyes like hooded lights
Out of the shadow of pogroms
Calicoes and furs,
Pocket-books and scarfs,
Razor strops and knives
(Patterns in check…)
Olive hands and russet head,
Pickles red and coppery,
Green pickles, brown pickles,
(Patterns in tapestry…)
Coral beads, blue beads,
Beads of pearl and amber,
Gewgaws, beauty pins—
Bijoutry for chits—
Darting rays of violet,
Amethyst and jade…
All the colors out to play,
(Patterns in stained glass
Shivered into bits!)
Nooses of gay ribbon
Tugging at one’s sleeve,
Dainty little garters
Hanging out their sign…
Here a pout of frilly things—
There a sonsy feather…
(White beards, black beards
Like knots in the weave…)
And ah, the little babies—
Shiny black-eyed babies—
(Half a million pink toes
Baskets full of babies
Like grapes on a vine.
Mothers waddling in and out,
Making all things right—
Picking up the slipped threads
In Grand street at night—
Grand street like a great bazaar,
Crowded like a float,
Bulging like a crazy quilt
Stretched on a line.
But nearer seen
This litter of the East
Takes on a garbled majesty.
The herded stalls
In dissolute array…
The glitter and the jumbled finery
And strangely juxtaposed
Cans, paper, rags
And colors decomposing,
Faded like old hair,
With flashes of barbaric hues
And eyes of mystery…
Like an ancient tapestry of motley weave
Upon the open wall of this new land.
Here, a tawny-headed girl…
Lemons in a greenish broth
And a huge earthen bowl
By a bronzed merchant
With a tall black lamb’s wool cap upon his head…
He has no glance for her.
His thrifty eyes
Their hoarded looks
Upon his merchandise,
As though it were some splendid cloth
Or sumptuous raiment
Stitched in gold and red…
He seldom talks
Save of the goods he spreads—
The meager cotton with its dismal flower—
But with his skinny hands
That hover like two hawks
Above some luscious meat,
He fingers lovingly each calico,
As though it were a gorgeous shawl,
Or costly vesture
Wrought in silken thread,
Or strange bright carpet
Made for sandaled feet…
Here an old grey scholar stands.
His brooding eyes—
That hold long vistas without end
Of caravans and trees and roads,
And cities dwindling in remembrance—
Bend mostly on his tapes and thread.
What if they tweak his beard—
These raw young seed of Israel
Who have no backward vision in their eyes—
And mock him as he sways
Above the sunken arches of his feet—
They find no peg to hang their taunts upon.
His soul is like a rock
That bears a front worn smooth
By the coarse friction of the sea,
And, unperturbed, he keeps his bitter peace.
What if a rigid arm and stuffed blue shape,
Backed by a nickel star
Does prod him on,
Taking his proud patience for humility…
All gutters are as one
To that old race that has been thrust
From off the curbstones of the world…
And he smiles with the pale irony
Of one who holds
The wisdom of the Talmud stored away
In his mind’s lavender.
But this young trader,
Born to trade as to a caul,
Peddles the notions of the hour.
The gestures of the craft are his
And all the lore
As when to hold, withdraw, persuade, advance…
And be it gum or flags,
Or clean-all or the newest thing in tags,
Demand goes to him as the bee to flower.
All who come and go
With his amazing
Slight-of-mind and glance
And nimble thought
And nature balanced like the scales at nought—
Looks Westward where the trade-lights glow,
And sees his vision rise—
A tape-ruled vision,
Circumscribed in stone—
Some fifty stories to the skies.
As I sit in my little fifth-floor room—
Save for bed and chair,
And coppery stains
Left by seeping rains
On the low ceiling
And green plaster walls,
Where when night falls
Come out of their holes,
And roaches, sepia-brown, consort…
I hear bells pealing
Out of the gray church at Rutgers street,
Holding its high-flung cross above the Ghetto,
And, one floor down across the court,
The parrot screaming:
The parrot frowsy-white,
On its iron bar.
A little old woman,
With a wig of smooth black hair
Gummed about her shrunken brows,
Comes sometimes on the fire escape.
An old stooped mother,
The left shoulder low
With that uneven droopiness that women know
Who have suckled many young…
Yet I have seen no other than the parrot there.
I watch her mornings as she shakes her rugs
Feebly, with futile reach
And fingers without clutch.
Her thews are slack
And curved the ruined back
And flesh empurpled like old meat,
Yet each conspires
To feed those guttering fires
With which her eyes are quick.
On Friday nights
Her candles signal
Infinite fine rays
To other windows,
Coupling other lights,
Linking the tenements
Like an endless prayer.
She seems less lonely than the bird
That day by day about the dismal house
Screams out his frenzied word…
That night by night—
If a dog yelps
Or a cat yawls
Or a sick child whines,
Or a door screaks on its hinges,
Or a man and woman fight—
Sends his cry above the huddled roofs:
In this dingy cafe
The old men sit muffled in woollens.
Everything is faded, shabby, colorless, old…
The chairs, loose-jointed,
Creaking like old bones—
The tables, the waiters, the walls,
Whose mottled plaster
Blends in one tone with the old flesh.
Young life and young thought are alike barred,
And no unheralded noises jolt old nerves,
And old wheezy breaths
Pass around old thoughts, dry as snuff,
And there is no divergence and no friction
Because life is flattened and ground as by many mills.
And it is here the Committee—
Sweet-breathed and smooth of skin
And supple of spine and knee,
With shining unpouched eyes
And the blood, high-powered,
Leaping in flexible arteries—
The insolent, young, enthusiastic, undiscriminating Committee,
Who would placard tombstones
And scatter leaflets even in graves,
Comes trampling with sacrilegious feet!
The old men turn stiffly,
Mumbling to each other.
They are gentle and torpid and busy with eating.
But one lifts a face of clayish pallor,
There is a dull fury in his eyes, like little rusty grates.
He rises slowly,
Trembling in his many swathings like an awakened mummy,
Ridiculous yet terrible.
—And the Committee flings him a waste glance,
Dropping a leaflet by his plate.
A lone fire flickers in the dusty eyes.
The lips chant inaudibly.
The warped shrunken body straightens like a tree.
And he curses…
With uplifted arms and perished fingers,
So centuries ago
The old men cursed Acosta,
When they, prophetic, heard upon their sepulchres
Those feet that may not halt nor turn aside for ancient things.
Here in this room, bare like a barn,
Egos gesture one to the other—
Naked, unformed, unwinged
Egos out of the shell,
Examining, searching, devouring—
Avid alike for the flower or the dung…
(Having no dainty antennae for the touch and withdrawal—
Only the open maw…)
Expanding in the mean egg…
Little squat tailors with unkempt faces,
Pale as lard,
Fur-makers, factory-hands, shop-workers,
News-boys with battling eyes
And bodies yet vibrant with the momentum of long runs,
Here and there a woman…
Words, words, words,
Pattering like hail,
Like hail falling without aim…
Screaming each other down.
One motions perpetually,
Waving arms like overgrowths.
He has burning eyes and a cough
And a thin voice piping
Like a flute among trombones.
One, red-bearded, rearing
A welter of maimed face bashed in from some old wound,
Garbles Max Stirner.
His words knock each other like little wooden blocks.
No one heeds him,
And a lank boy with hair over his eyes
Pounds upon the table.
—He is chairman.
Egos yet in the primer,
Chanting grand arias…
Stunning with sound…
Half-heard like rain on pools…
Greater than harmonies…
—Gleaning out of it all
Passion, bewilderment, pain…
Egos yearning with the world-old want in their eyes—
Hurt hot eyes that do not sleep enough…
Striving with infinite effort,
Frustrate yet ever pursuing
The great white Liberty,
Trailing her dissolving glory over each hard-won barricade—
Only to fade anew…
Egos crying out of unkempt deeps
And waving their dreams like flags—
Winged and glorious…
A gas jet throws a stunted flame,
Vaguely illumining the groping faces.
And through the uncurtained window
Falls the waste light of stars,
As cold as wise men’s eyes…
Indifferent great stars,
At the secret meeting in this shut-in room,
Bare as a manger.
Lights go out
And the stark trunks of the factories
Melt into the drawn darkness,
Sheathing like a seamless garment.
And mothers take home their babies,
Waxen and delicately curled,
Like little potted flowers closed under the stars.
Lights go out
And the young men shut their eyes,
But life turns in them…
Life in the cramped ova
Tearing and rending asunder its living cells…
Wars, arts, discoveries, rebellions, travails, immolations,
Pent in the shut flesh.
And the young men twist on their beds in languor and dizziness
Their eyes—heavy and dimmed
With dust of long oblivions in the gray pulp behind—
Staring as through a choked glass.
And they gaze at the moon—throwing off a faint heat—
The moon, blond and burning, creeping to their cots
Softly, as on naked feet…
Lolling on the coverlet… like a woman offering her white body.
Nude glory of the moon!
That leaps like an athlete on the bosoms of the young girls stripped
of their linens;
Stroking their breasts that are smooth and cool as mother-of-pearl
Till the nipples tingle and burn as though little lips plucked at them.
They shudder and grow faint.
And their ears are filled as with a delirious rhapsody,
That Life, like a drunken player,
Strikes out of their clear white bodies
As out of ivory keys.
Lights go out…
And the great lovers linger in little groups, still passionately debating,
Or one may walk in silence, listening only to the still summons of Life—
Life making the great Demand…
Calling its new Christs…
Till tears come, blurring the stars
That grow tender and comforting like the eyes of comrades;
And the moon rolls behind the Battery
Like a word molten out of the mouth of God.
Lights go out…
And colors rush together,
Fusing and floating away…
Pale worn gold like the settings of old jewels…
Mauves, exquisite, tremulous, and luminous purples
And burning spires in aureoles of light
Like shimmering auras.
They are covering up the pushcarts…
Now all have gone save an old man with mirrors—
Little oval mirrors like tiny pools.
He shuffles up a darkened street
And the moon burnishes his mirrors till they shine like phosphorus…
The moon like a skull,
Staring out of eyeless sockets at the old men trundling home the pushcarts.
A sallow dawn is in the sky
As I enter my little green room.
Sadie’s light is still burning…
Without, the frail moon
Worn to a silvery tissue,
Throws a faint glamour on the roofs,
And down the shadowy spires
Lights tip-toe out…
Softly as when lovers close street doors.
Out of the Battery
A little wind
Stirs idly—as an arm
Trails over a boat’s side in dalliance—
Rippling the smooth dead surface of the heat,
And Hester street,
Like a forlorn woman over-born
By many babies at her teats,
Turns on her trampled bed to meet the day.
Startling, vigorous life,
That squirms under my touch,
And baffles me when I try to examine it,
Or hurls me back without apology.
Leaving my ego ruffled and preening itself.
Screaming in provocative assertion,
Or out of the black and clotted gutters,
Piping in silvery thin
Of children’s laughter,
Or clinging over the pushcarts
Like a litter of tiny bells
Or the jingle of silver coins,
Perpetually changing hands,
Or like the Jordan somberly
Swirling in tumultuous uncharted tides,
Electric currents of life,
Throwing off thoughts like sparks,
Making unknown circuits,
Or out of spent particles stirring
Feeble contortions in old faiths
Passing before the new.
Long nights argued away
In meeting halls
Back of interminable stairways—
In Roumanian wine-shops
And little Russian tea-rooms…
Feet echoing through deserted streets
In the soft darkness before dawn…
Brows aching, throbbing, burning—
Life leaping in the shaken flesh
Like flame at an asbestos curtain.
Stoops and façades,
Jostling, pushing, contriving,
Seething as in a great vat…
Bartering, changing, extorting,
Dreaming, debating, aspiring,
Life of the Ghetto…
Strong flux of life,
Like a bitter wine
Out of the bloody stills of the world…
Out of the Passion eternal.
More about Lola Ridge
- Lola Ridge at Poetry Foundation
- Lola Ridge on Poem Hunter
- Lola Ridge, a Great Irish Writer and Why You’ve Never Heard of Her
- Lola Ridge, the Radical Modernist We Won’t Forget Twice
- “Anything That Burns You”: Lola Ridge